Think Again: All in this together

Our primary natural resource is brainpower, and haredim represent our largest untapped reserve.

haredi children (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
haredi children
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

The Iranian nuclear threat serves as a handyreminder to the Jews of Israel that we are bound by a common fate. Forthose of us willing to live without that particular reminder, there areplenty of others - the water shortage for instance.

Thetime has come for members of the various Jewish subcommunities torecognize that life here is not a zero-sum game: What benefits onegroup need not come at the expense of another. Improving thetransportation infrastructure provides a good example.

Prof. Dan Ben-David of the Taub Center notes that Israel hashalf the average number of cars per capita but three times thecongestion of other Western countries. The low level of ourtransportation infrastructure constitutes a major drag on workerproductivity, an area where Israel is falling behind its majorcompetitors. Rapid transit connecting the periphery to the centralregion, the country's economic hub, holds the key to the development ofthe periphery.

The haredi community too would benefit greatly from a closerconnection of the periphery to the central region, where the majorharedi population centers are located. One of the great challengesfacing the haredi world today is the lack of housing for young couples.In neighborhoods that were considered a "buy" just a few years ago,two- to three-bedroom apartments, usually in need of renovation, costclose to $200,000. In the meantime, there is almost no building insatellite communities relatively close to Jerusalem or Bnei Brak. As aconsequence, thousands of young couples find themselves living in tiny,windowless rented apartments reminiscent of the cages used to study theimpact of overcrowding on laboratory mice.

In the long run, there is no alternative but todevelop new outlying communities. The ability of such communities toattract residents will depend on their accessibility to the center ofthe country. Without Route 6, for instance, it is doubtful thatplanning for a new haredi community in Harish would have proceeded sofar. An expansion of the periphery would, in turn, bring down prices inthe center of the country.

IN NO AREA, however, are the interests of the general andharedi populations so congruent as haredi employment. Israel's highrate of non-employment, to which haredim are a major contributor, is amajor cause of our low productivity and sliding relative standard ofliving.

Ourprimary natural resource is brainpower, and haredim represent ourlargest untapped reserve. A secular teacher of the preparation coursefor matriculation exams at Jerusalem's Michlala Haredit described to Haaretz'sYair Ettinger how the exposure to the rigorous logic of the Talmud andthe ability to focus for many hours straight enables older haredim toovercome sharp gaps in a relatively short time. In his course, 70percent scored over the national median and 15% above 700 (as opposedto 5% of the general population) on the matriculation exams, despitehaving almost no formal education in math and English.

In the haredi community too, there is a growingrecognition of the need for work. More than half of haredi families,according to the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor, do not covertheir monthly expenses, much less save anything. And economic pressuresgive rise to a whole set of corollary problems. The Talmud states thatmost domestic squabbles arise out of economic pressures, and a gooddeal of recent survey evidence supports that observation. Feelings ofdeprivation among children growing up surrounded by a relativelyaffluent society are a contributing factor to dropouts from the haredicommunity.

Young haredim are voting with their feet. Approximately 2,000 are currently enrolled in degree granting programs, according to Haaretz. At Hamodia'slast annual Forum for Administrators, Bank of Israel Governor StanleyFischer spoke of the impact on the country's economic future of thehigh rate of non-employment. Haredi MKs responded that jobdiscrimination constitutes a major factor underlying low employmentrates among haredi men. That response implicitly accepts the necessityof higher and better paid haredi employment.

The claim of discrimination cannot be dismissed out of hand. Ina recent survey, 56% of employers said they would not hire haredim.Haredim running major institutions and organizations are barred bycivil service rules from serving on government boards because they donot have bachelor's degrees. Though the number affected is small, doingaway with such rules would broadcast an important symbolic message.

The government could do more to facilitate haredi employment -e.g. through expanded job training programs. Income tax deductionsbased on family size that were not limited to mothers would remove onecurrent disincentive to haredi male employment. A limited affirmativeaction program, designed not to force employers to hire inferiorworkers but to overcome barriers caused by a lack of familiarity withharedi workers, is another possibility.

Structural barriers to haredi employment are already comingdown. In the past, if a haredi man learning in kollel thought aboutgoing to work, he was often scared off by the cost of training and theloss of his only source of income in the form of his kollel stipend.Today, scholarships, and even some stipends, are available from anumber of sources.

Kemach, a private philanthropic initiative, with some supportfrom the government and the Joint Distribution Committee, has approvedmore than 2,000 students for vocational or academic scholarships, andhopes to provide 2,500 scholarships in the coming year. The vastmajority of the recipients (85%) are male. Their average age is 29, andthey have on average 3.4 children. Without the scholarships, embarkingon training courses of one to three years would be unthinkable formost.

Of Kemach graduates so far, 76% are working full-time; 78% ofthose report significant increases in their monthly income, and 89% seethe potential for further advancement.

The recent formation of a reserve unit withinNahal Haredi offers hope for the removal of another barrier to harediemployment. The new reserve unit represents the model of a frameworkwithin the army within which married haredi men can do basic trainingand subsequent reserve duty. Already the IDF, through its Shaharprogram, has emerged as a major employer of haredi males.

ASIMPORTANT as security, water, transportation and employment are, allJews in Israel share an even more fundamental interest: the need for astronger connection to Torah. Without a belief in a unique Jewishmission and the sense of purpose it provides, many secular Israeliswith the skills to do so will eventually leave rather than live underconstant threat.

This is the area where the haredi community has the most tocontribute. Mrs. Tzila Schneider, who created a program of studypartnerships for 5,000 pairs of secular and haredi women under theauspices of Ayelet Hashahar, and is currently building a similarprogram for university students under the banner of Nefesh Yehudi,represents the ideal attitude. She tells every potential haredivolunteer: If you see yourself as only a teacher in this relationship,but don't feel you have anything to gain from your secular partner,this program is not for you. This program is only for those who believeevery Jew is special and that we are all intimately bound to oneanother.